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Banner: First Among EqualsRobert Laird Borden banner

Speech before the Canadian Club at Winnipeg, December 29, 1914


From Halifax to Winnipeg I have journeyed across this vast continent for a distance greater than that which would span the Atlantic; and yet I am only at the threshold of these great western provinces, which have responded so splendidly to the call of duty that came more than four months ago. Through all the vastness of this Dominion, with its scattered centres of population and its diversity of race, tradition and creed, there is but one voice as to the justice of the cause for which we have drawn the sword and but one reply as to the obligation which rests upon us. Nowhere in this Dominion has that response and that voice been more unanimous and more emphatic than in this great gateway city of the West.

In this Dominion, confronted as we are with peaceful tasks that tax to the fullest extent our energies in the development of our vast territory, and in the upbuilding of a great free nation on the northern half of this continent, it is almost impossible to realize a conception which regards the waging of war as a justifiable, desirable and even necessary means of national progress and development. The three great wars in which Germany has engaged during the past fifty years have brought to the nation prestige, territory, huge war indemnities and an astonishing increase of national power and influence. During all that period German soil has never been oppressed by the foot of an invader and its people have been spared many of the miseries which war has brought to the nations over whom they triumphed. The religion of valour; the doctrine that might constitutes the highest and only right; that the State is bound to exercise through war its increasing power for its own advancement and for the diffusion of its ideals and culture; the belief that German ideals, methods and culture embody the highest and best results of civilization and that Germany military dominance represents what is best not only for Germany but for the whole world; the economic and commercial advantages and the colonial expansion which German military prowess would secure for the nation through war; these and the like considerations explain in part the concentration of Germany's thought upon the ideal of force, of war and of conquest. Their Government possesses a control of public opinion which we find it difficult to realize. All the influences which mould the thought of the people have continuously proclaimed that war, especially war with our Empire, was a stern and inevitable duty. Their ruling classes constitute a military autocracy, and the military caste with its all-commanding authority was bent on war. Beyond question, there were influences in Germany which made for peace and favoured peaceful development; but those forces apparently lacked organization and leadership. Moreover, there has been evident in Germany during the past quarter of a century a rising spirit of democracy which has brought inquietude to the ruling oligarchy and to those who are devoted to the principles of absolutism. There was great confidence that a successful war would be a powerful factor in checking or quelling that spirit.

Between the Prussian autocracy and its ideal of worldwide dominance, British supremacy upon the sea has stood as a barrier which must disappear if the ideal was to be attained; and so it was proclaimed that Germany's future was on the sea. We are only beginning to realize the enormous military strength of the German Empire. We are only commencing to understand how immensely superior she stood in military organization, preparation and resources to all the other nations at the outbreak of war. Wielding that tremendous power, which made any apprehension of attack by our Empire a mere idle dream, Germany has for at least twenty years, with constantly increasing emphasis, pressed her challenge of the seas upon the British Empire. Germany well knew, as Britain knew, what that challenge meant and what would ensue from the failure to accept it. We had either to admit our inability to guard adequately the pathways of the Empire and thus retire ingloriously from the contest forced mercilessly upon us, or we had to make good the Empire's right to exist; and that meant the supremacy of our naval forces against any attack that might reasonably be apprehended. Thus the contest in naval armaments, which British statesmen have vainly endeavoured to prevent, has proceeded from year to year. No shot was fired, no ships were sunk, no battle was fought; but it was, in truth, war between the two nations. International issues are often determined otherwise than by actual hostilities; and Great Britain realized that when her power upon the seas could be successfully challenged by Germany the day of her departure was at hand and indeed had already arrived.

On three recognized occasions during the past ten years Germany has brought Europe to the verge of actual war. On two of these occasions she imposed her will upon Europe, but on the third Great Britain stood firmly resolute and Germany receded. The events of 1911 have never been forgotten; and there is reason to believe that, but for the commanding influence and untiring efforts of Sir Edward Grey, the war which broke out in 1914 would have been forced upon Europe duing the previous year. I have spoken of three occasions; but as was once said to me by a statesman of great experience in the foreign office: "The international kettle is always on the verge of boiling, although the people know nothing of it until the steam begins to escape." When the secrets of diplomatic records come to be fully disclosed I do not doubt that in each of the past ten years German aggressiveness will be found to have made war imminent or at least probable.

Not only here, but in the British Islands, military preparation has been imperfect because development has proceeded along the paths of peace. The instinct of the British people is against militarism and great standing armies are not viewed with favour. But in the British Islands and in the self-governing Dominions alone there are at least sixty millions of people, a population nearly equal to that of Germany. If our preparation for the struggle was insignificant compared with that of Germany, let us not forget that her resources are insignificant compared with those of this Empire. There are many things which count besides armed forces in the field. In the organization of modern war all the resources of the nation must be reckoned with. Consider those of Canada, which even during the coming year can supply food products to an almost unlimited extent. Our great transportation systems are an invaluable asset even for military purposes. How was it possible to assemble at Valcartier Camp within two weeks after the outbreak of war a force of 35,000 men gathered from a territory nearly as large as Europe? How was it possible to arm, equip and organize them so that the force was ready to sail within six weeks from the day on which the order was given? This was possible because of the organizing ability, the great transportation systems and the industrial activities of Canada. Already our factories are turning out not only clothing and equipment of all kinds, but munitions of war on a great scale and of a character that we did not dream of producing four months ago. Our inexhaustible resources in the forests, the fisheries, the coal and minerals of Canada are tremendous assets in this war. All this must tell in the long run, as Germany will yet know. In a word, we have the resources, while Germany has the preparation.

The ability of the Allied armies to hold in check the powerful forces of Germany pending the preparation which we lack has been amply demonstrated; and the armies of the Empire, as well as its enormous resources, are already being organized on such a scale as leaves no room for doubt as to the issue of this struggle. The preparation must be thoroughly and adequately made. It would be not only useless, but criminal, to send our citizen soldiers into the field of battle without the organization, training and discipline which are essential under conditions of modern warfare.

So here in the West, as well as in the East of this Dominion and throughout the Empire, armies are being organized, equipment and armaments are being prepared and we are making ready for the day when the hosts of Germany shall be driven back within their own frontiers and the march begins which shall not end until the Prussian oligarchy and its dominance over the German people shall have come to a deserved and inevitable end.

During the past three months I have seen at least 60,000 Canadians under arms, and of these 30,000 will shortly be at the battle front. Abroad and at home we have more than 100,000 Canadians preparing for the sternest of all a soldier's duties. Those who are shortly to be at the front will fight side by side with the best troops in the world, and we have a reasonable confidence, inspired by the memories of the past, that they will bear themselves worthily and with honour to themselves and their country. Those who are acquiring the training and discipline of the soldier will do well to remember that they are as truly serving their country as if they were at the front, for without this their service would be ineffective and useless.

It is hardly necessary to emphasize the unity of purpose which actuates the entire Empire in this struggle. For the ruling classes of Germany it is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend, even imperfectly, the strength of an Empire bound together by ties which to them seem so imperfect and so attenuated. The ideals of government upon which the German Empire is based are so profoundly different from those which constitute the strength and hold firm the unity of the British Dominions, that this result is not surprising. Our self-governing Dominions are united by the ties of a common allegiance to the Crown; but the Crown has become the symbol of the people's sovereignty. According to our conception and practice of govenment, the King reigns to execute the will of the people who rule. The strength of the Empire rests upon the eternal foundation of liberty expressed in the ideal and consummation of autonomous self-government which is vested in the people of the self-governing Dominions as of right and not of grace. The spirit of Prussian absolutism dominating the people of the German Empire regards any such form of Government as weak and ineffective. They conceive that it represents only a passing phase and that the German theory of absolutism cannot fail to impress itself upon the whole world in due course. So that this struggle involves issues which transcend even the interests and the future of our own Empire and which embrace the whole theory and practice of government for all the future generations of the world. If the militarist and autocratic ideals of the Prussian oligarchy can assert themselves in worldwide dominance, the progress and development of democracy will either have been stayed forever or the work of centuries will have been undone and mankind must struggle anew for ideals of freedom and rights of self-government which have been established as the birthright of the British people. Thus the powers of democracy are themselves on trial today and the issue of this conflict concerns not only the existence of the British Empire, but all the worldwide aspirations that have found expression in the freedom which its people enjoy.

Insofar as this Empire may be said to possess a constitution, it is of modern growth and is still in the stage of development. One can hardly conceive that it will ever distinctly emerge from that stage or attain a status in which constitutional development is no longer to be anticipated. Indeed, the genius of the British people and all our past history lead us to believe the contrary. The steps in advance have been usually gradual and always practical; and they have been taken rather by instinct than upon any carefully considered theory. But the very liberties of the Empire made possible results which no absolutism could foresee. Thus the unity of purpose inspiring the British Dominions and their participation in this war upon so vast a scale has amused the Prussian warlords. Also it has shattered their confident belief that the military resources of those Dominions were entirely negligible. It is within the bounds of probability that the four free nations of the overseas dominions will have put into the fighting line 250,000 men if this war should continue for another year. That result, or even the results which have already been obtained, must mark a great epoch in the history of inter-imperial relations. There are those within sound of my voice who will see the overseas Dominions surpass in wealth and population the British Islands; there are children playing in your streets who may see Canada alone attain that eminence. Thus it is impossible to believe that the existing status, so far as it concerns the control of foreign policy and extra-imperial relations, can remain as it is today. All are conscious of the complexity of the problem thus presented; but no one need despair of a satisfactory solution and no one can doubt the profound influence which the tremendous events of the past few months and of those in the immediate future must exercise upon one of the most interesting and far-reaching questions ever presented for the consideration of statesmen.

There are no more loyal and patriotic citizens of Canada than the people of German descent in all parts of our Dominion. Both in the East and in the West they have been earnest and active in endeavour and in aid. And it is particularly to be noted that citizens of German descent in Canada are a peace loving people and averse to all forms of militarism. They thoroughly understand and appreciate the principles of democratic government; they detest absolutism and abhor war. But if the teachings of the most advanced thinkers of Germany are to be regarded and if the course of the German Government is to be considered as expressive of the national spirit, no such ideal animates the German people. Germany is disposed to dismiss with indifference and even contempt all proposals for settling international differences by peaceful methods. Indeed, the German Government seems to consider any such proposals as expressly directed against Germany's interests which, as they conceive, demand that her military power must inevitably be employed for her national development and advancement through the subjugation and humiliation of other nations and the appropriation of such of their possessions as she may find most useful for her purposes. This conception carries with it the ideal that in all the centuries to come brute force shall be the highest right; that the most powerful nation shall be a law to itself; that its treaties and obligations may be put aside when necessity arises, and that the national will shall alone be the judge of that necessity. If all the teachings of Christianity and all the ideals of modern civilization point only to this result, mankind has not great reason to regard its ideals and standards as on a higher plane than those of the brute creation. Indeed, one should then say that man was made a little lower than the brutes.

"No more? A monster, then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music matched with him."

Such ideals are not helpful to humanity, and the sooner they are dispelled and dismissed the better for the nation which entertains them and the better for the world. If this war was necessary for that purpose, let us not regret that it came when it did.

In common with the whole world, we fully recognize and appreciate the great qualities of the German people and all that they have achieved in the highest spheres of human activity and usefulness. With them we desired no contest, except in generous rivalry for the advancement of all that is best in modern civilization. With them we have no quarrel, save that they have forsaken the cause of liberty and democracy in rendering an unquestioning obedience to the militarist and arrogant autocracy to which they have surrendered the control of their national life. In this struggle against the Prussian oligarchy and against its ideals, Canada, in common with all the Empire, is prepared to fight, and intends to fight, to the death. Reverses may come, sacrifices will be inevitable, there may be days of doubt and even of gloom; but the fortitude, the determination and the resourcefulness which did not fail the people of this Empire in the storm and peril of more than a century ago and which have maintained the northern half of this continent as part of the Empire, are still our common inheritance and will not fail us now.

There is but one way to deal effectively with the Prussian gospel of force and violence and the Prussian ideal of absolutism. It must be smashed utterly and completely. The sooner that is accomplished the better for the German people and for all the nations. Canada joins wholeheartedly in that great task. What has been done is known to all. What remains to be done shall be limited only by the need.


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Source: Borden, Robert Laird. Canada at war: speeches by the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Laird Borden before Canadian Club. [Ottawa?: Office of the Prime Minister?], 1914. Pages 25-31.


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